Olivia Wilde Proves She’s a Born Director With Wonderfully Rebellious ‘Booksmart’
Olivia Wilde, once believed to be a blockbuster star in waiting, now reveals herself to be one of the year’s most promising new directors. “Booksmart” is a refreshing film about teenage life while defying the usual trend. It seeks to inject a sense of rebellion when dealing with a generation that might seem a bit conformist in its own way, obsessing over college admissions and the perfect career path, when life itself is unpredictable. The apple polishers and the cool kids both get burned but not judged in this movie. Wilde’s aim is to craft a hymn to modern-day youth, with all of its stress and joy.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are a classic high school best friend duo. Practically joined at the hip, the two are model students focused on grades and college. It’s the day before they graduate and everything seems set. Molly is off to Yale and Amy will work in an aid program in Africa before going to Columbia. As class president Molly is a bit too arrogant and proud of her status, looking down at her irresponsible classmates who like to party, experiment sexually and smoke in the bathroom. When she overhears three such degenerates, Triple A (Molly Gordon), Tanner (Nico Hiraga) and Theo (Eduardo Franco) badmouthing her, Molly tries to rub it in their faces that she’s going to have Ivy League status and therefore a secure future. But wait, it turns out Triple A is also off to Yale, Tanner is off to Stanford and grade-repeater and major stoner Theo has a coding gig waiting for him at Google. Her perceptions obliterated, Molly demands her and Amy use this last night of high school to cover the teen experience bases or forever regret having wasted their lives. They need to attend a party, do some drugs and hopefully get Amy to score with her big crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).
On the surface the premise of “Booksmart” sounds similar to teen romps like “Blockers” or “Project X.” But it is nothing of the sort. It has a thematic similarity to “Superbad,” but with a sharper edge and more heart. Wilde has made a film that takes being a teen seriously, at times with the eloquence of John Hughes. The screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman has everything from slapstick to mature drama, but with a unique respect for its subjects. Too many movies about teenagers feel designed to cater to the misconception that its audiences only seek dumb escapism. Not only is this film rowdy and fun, but insightful. “Booksmart” is about what it feels like to be a teenager in these times, when life is charted a certain way so you can be “successful,” where what rebellion exactly means has slightly changed. While other shows or films use college as some kind of automatic golden ticket, Wilde gleefully looks at it from a subversive angle. Molly and Amy discover that in a suburban world where nearly everyone is automatically going to good schools, maybe it’s not worth it to become a passionless, professional test-taker. None of the kids in this story are stupid, but as Triple A tells Molly, for them school isn’t the only thing they care about. Even Principal Brown (played by Wilde’s partner Jason Sudeikis) looks tired out by Molly’s last minute demands for student government meetings to insure a smooth transition.
The journey Molly and Amy engage in, desperate to find the address for a party being thrown by Molly’s vice president, Nick (Mason Gooding), combines head-long energy with moments of endearing character development. We get to know these girls, their friendship and hidden emotions. We also go deeper into the world of the fantastic supporting gallery of classmates. Everyone feels so authentic they could be plucked from a documentary. There’s George (Noah Galvin), the theater major who turns his house into a murder mystery-themed bash (with the parents tucked away in the kitchen), rich girl Gigi (brilliantly played by the late Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd), who always makes a grand entrance and throws a lonely boat party with minion Jared (Skyler Gisondo). Their dialogue snaps with the current catch phrases being uttered in high schools everywhere, and when they bite the insults truly sting. After facing a moment of heartbreak, Amy will snap at a cynic named Hope (Diana Silvers) and call her a “basic hot girl” who reached her peak with high school. But Wilde is working in layers, allowing each party and each confrontation to reveal that people are not so easy to judge by mere appearances. Like teenagers anywhere these kids drink, try sex (or talk about it to no end) and experiment with drugs, but instead of being a cynical, debauched raunch fest, the film treats such moments with the sincerity of what’s like to be young. Yes people party, but then a first kiss will be nerve-wracking, or you’ll discover that your crush was probably not into you. Sex gets clumsy and the wildest rumors about someone turn out to be just that. The writing refreshingly gives these high schoolers real identities that never become stereotypes. Characters are openly gay, the idea of sex and gender being two different things is intelligently discussed in the dialogue, and a rich kid like Gigi is really putting on an act to hide loneliness. Molly, so obsessed with perfect grades and eventually making it to the Supreme Court, is hiding her own attraction to a classmate, essentially self-repressing her curiosity.
What is quite impressive is how Wilde balances this level of intimacy with fantastic comedy. She’s having great fun with all of the material, crafting scenes that turn into smart satire. Molly’s room is a hilarious riff on our current positive-minded culture, with portraits of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her shelves. Later on Molly and Amy accidentally take drugs at one party and the film shifts into a trippy hallucination where the two become, quite literally, dolls. An Uber driver accidentally plugs the girls’ phone porn into the car speakers and an odd pizza delivery man (Michael Patrick O’Brien) warns them about the dangers of bumping into psychos at night, with a little too much detail. Carrying the material splendidly are Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, who bring a real sense of camaraderie to their roles. We never doubt for one moment these two are best friends, their enthusiasm jumps off the screen. This brings a real sting to those moments where the two will eventually clash, as most friends must at some point.
The Olivia Wilde of films like “Tron Legacy” and TV efforts like “Vinyl” is no more. While she’s always been a strong actress, Wilde now becomes a director of energy and depth. With her directing and the years-in-the-making script written entirely by women, “Booksmart” is also a striking, feminist testament to the great women artists in Hollywood. But above all this is one of the best, recent coming of age tales. Like last year’s “Eighth Grade,” it takes the idea of growing up seriously, but with more of an anarchic spirit. Wilde is reminding those in the audience stressing over what three letter institution will define the course of their existence that it’s ok to live a little. This is one of the year’s best films.
“Booksmart” opens May 24 in theaters nationwide.